EU funds video game teaching kids to tackle homophobic bullying

The EU is funding the development of a video game to help tackle racist, homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying.

The University of the West of Scotland (UWS) has been awarded £22,000 (€246,785) in EU funding for the new research project, which academics say will “study the impact of using serious gaming technology in curbing prejudice-based bullying among children”.

The project will see development of a computer game aimed at children aged between 10 and 12 to challenge attitudes of “racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia or transphobia”.

The game will help kids “explore their own prejudiced attitudes and how harmful these can be when they lead to bullying”.

(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

According to UWS, the game will “allow children to immerse themselves in a virtual school environment where prejudice-based bullying occurs and make choices as to how the characters in the story should react”.

The game will be available in early 2019 for use on school PCs with a large-scale evaluation planned for late 2019 across four European countries.

Dr Maria Sapouna, lecturer in criminology and criminal justice in the School of Media, Culture & Society at UWS, and project lead, said: “Prejudice-based bullying targets the most socially excluded groups of children and is a critical predictor of poor school performance and school drop-out, thereby damaging these children’s future prospects.

“Research shows teachers do not always know how to effectively respond to incidents of prejudice-based bullying. We hope this project can fill this gap by developing a new approach that can support teachers to address issues of prejudice and bullying from a young age.”

The project is a 28-month collaboration between UWS, The Open University of the Netherlands, University of Patras in Greece and Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra, Slovakia.

Katie Rafferty, Director at respectme, Scotland’s anti-bullying service, said: “Bullying in all its forms is unacceptable and bullying motivated by prejudiced attitudes has no place in Scotland and should be swiftly addressed.

“Schools have the potential to help bring about real social change by challenging prejudiced attitudes through education and preparing young people for adulthood.

“respectme aims to empower the adults in children’s lives to prevent and respond to bullying effectively and academic contributions from across Scotland and beyond play a vital role in shaping our knowledge about the most effective anti-bullying strategies.

“We look forward to this research project getting underway at the University of West of Scotland and drawing from the lessons it will offer us about how to achieve real, sustainable change in relation to prejudice-based bullying.”

A number of mainstream video games have taken steps in recent years to become more LGBT-inclusive.

Overwatch, Football Manager and Planet Coaster are just some of the games that have recently made sure LGBT people are represented.

Microsoft’s Xbox Live network also recently overhauled its Avatar system to make all clothing gender-neutral.

The games console lets users design and customise a virtual character to represent them on Xbox Live, with custom options to kit them out in different clothes and accessories.

Previously gamers had been forced to pick a virtual gender, restricting the clothing to either ‘boy’ clothes or ‘girl’ clothes.

However, an update to the system made clothing gender-neutral.

Designer Kathryn Storm explained: “Our new Avatars are built with inclusivity absolutely in mind, with more options and flexibility.

“We want people to feel like we have endless options to really reflect who they are.”

Project manager Bryan Saftler added: “When we think about what we want to design, at the end of the day, Avatars are meant for whatever you want your digital self to represent.

“We don’t want to put you in a box. There’s no more checkboxes.

“No matter what you think you look like, this whole avatar system is designed so that you can represent your best self on Xbox Live.”

Asked about gender-neutral clothing, Kathryn Storm explained: “If you can see it in the store, you can wear it. We’re not holding you to any sort of check-boxes.”

Host Larry Hryb quipped: “That’s one of the new things you’re brining… if I want to wear a dress, well I’m going to wear a dress!”

The update, which will be released in the autumn, also adds wheelchairs.

Xbox follows in the wake of popular video game life simulator The Sims, which also made the decision to throw out ‘boy’ clothing and ‘girl’ clothing in an update last year.

Sims studio Maxis redesigned their system to make a range of custom gender options available for characters – tweaking their voice, putting them in any available clothing, and even changing the way they walk.

Exec Rachel Franklin explained that under the changes “female Sims can wear sharp men’s suits like Ellen [DeGeneres] and male Sims can wear heels like Prince.”

The Sims update was largely welcomed by the game’s fanbase.

Not every video game community has welcomed by fans, however.

Players of online fantasy game RuneScape held an in-game homophobic ‘riot’ after developers revealed plans for a special Pride celebration.

RuneScape featured a number of other events in recent years dedicated to important themes – including mental health, animal protection, and preventing online abuse – with little issue.

But after the Pride update was teased, thousands flooded the game’s Reddit and forums with criticism and homophobic abuse.

One of the highest-voted Reddit posts, which has more than 6000 upvotes, attacked game developers Jagex for “shoving your opinions about stuff down my throat.”

The post said: “I play this game to play this game, not to agree or debate with other people’s sexuality.

“A giant Rainbow Gay Pride holiday event being shoved down my throat [is] not acceptable.

“I’m not playing this game to celebrate other people’s sexuality predispositions/choices/preferences/taste/whatever you want to call it.”

Another highly-rated post ‘suggested’ the introduction of in-game “assless chaps” to accompany the event.

Hundreds of players even attempted to start an in-game “anti-Gay Pride riot”.

Hundreds of people assembled inside the game, repeatedly posting the slogan “We Pay No Gay”.

An image from the event shared on Reddit appeared to show messages claiming that being gay is a “disease” and that “God Hates Fags”.

Related: How The Sims became the most LGBT-friendly game of all time